The art of public uncoupling

By William Langley

It’s all sweetness now, but just wait. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s divorce may get nasty, says William Langley.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay singer Chris Martin. Photo / AP
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay singer Chris Martin. Photo / AP

We know the vibes will be alpha and the goji berries shared out fairly, but how different, really, will the split between Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow be? According to American business magazine Forbes, the pair are worth US$100 million ($115 million) each, which, history suggests, rightfully belongs to their lawyers.

The couple apparently gave each other gifts before parting, perhaps as a way of using up some of the money they won't have afterwards. Chris gave his wife an etching of a bird; she paid for a final holiday in the Bahamas. So sweet. And so essential.

Essential, because a successful celebrity divorce is defined by how you look afterwards to the third party known as public opinion. You are not simply fighting your case in court but across Twitter, on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in the pages of Vanity Fair. Your wife might convince the judge you are a monster, but if your PR team can sell you as a victim, you've less to worry about.

"It used to be that couples would put up the wall of silence, but now the stuff gets out there anyway, so the teams are jumping into the fray early on and spinning it," says Harvey Levin, managing editor of the TMZ celebrity gossip website.

If the client doesn't look good at the end of the divorce, regardless of how good the financial settlement is, they've failed."

In this light, Gwyneth's talk of a "conscious uncoupling" may be a lot less loopy than it sounds. Either she's learnt the art of self-parody, or her psychobabblings have been sincere all along - both possibilities that speak well of her. The gluten-free lifestyle guru and occasional actress is regularly voted one of the world's most annoying women, with her fish-placenta facial cleanses and Turkish bath towel tips.

But now, for the fragrance-addicted Paltrow, comes the sniff of a Nigella Lawson moment - the chance to show that her life is not all kale juice and holistic bikini waxes; that she is simply a wife whose marriage can go kaput like anyone else's. Suddenly, Princess Perfect might not look so clever, but there's a great opportunity for her, at 41, to re-emerge as a woman redeemed.

Will she seize it? Her detractors fear not, predicting that she will turn the divorce proceedings into a self-help resource, advocating a lengthy stay in a Himalayan ashram, with extra meditation and reiki massage sessions.

For Martin, the options are simpler. The son of a well-to-do Devon accountant and his music teacher wife, he attended Sherborne school, where he ran the Sting fan club, feared he might be gay and, hoping to build his self-confidence, started a blues band called the Rockin' Honkies, whose debut performance was met with an angry chorus of boos. "I was 15," he recalls. "My voice hadn't broken and my lyrics were appalling."

His communication skills haven't improved much, and he sensibly compensates by saying little. When his current band, Coldplay, goes on tour, promoters are asked to provide quiet and noisy buses. Martin has the quiet one, his three bandmates the noisy one.

So reticent by nature is the 37-year-old that, according to Coldplay lore, he asked his assistant to ask Paltrow if she would like to meet him backstage at a 2002 concert in London. A year later they were married.

They make an intriguing study in pop-cultural dissonance. Paltrow is a wonderful actress, possessed of an overwhelming desire to do good, who large numbers of people nevertheless can't stand. Martin's band has been critically praised and commercially successful, but it is hard to think of another major rock act that so many people dislike.

This is where the men in the Armani suits and crocodile loafers come in. Divorce is expensive, goes the old Hollywood saying, because it's worth the money. You can't afford to lose, for however punishing the legal expenses, it is the long-term cost of failing in the PR battle that hurts.

Mel Gibson had to pay half his estimated US$850 million fortune to his ex-wife, Robyn, three years ago, but the real damage was done by the leaked stories of his rages, bigotry, drunkenness and infidelity. Alec Baldwin, likewise tainted by claims of "unmanageable anger issues", came out of his divorce from Kim Basinger saying he felt like he had been "tied to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged down a gravel road late at night". Robin Williams left court wincing: "I believe the word 'divorce' comes from the Latin for a man having his genitals ripped out by way of his wallet."

The Martins are putting on a brave face, insisting that they still love each other and, "in many ways are closer than we have ever been". At which, the old hands of the celebrity divorce wars are likely to sigh and say that what they are really closer to is the moment it gets dirty.

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- Daily Telegraph UK

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